Inspiration: Computer Games and the Unwary Writer

Okay, okay, I’ll admit it – I’m a massive nerd. As we speak, I’m listening to Viridian City from the Pokemon soundtrack, and I have about six different graphic novels open on the floor. True story.

As a nerd, I enjoy computer games probably ten times more than everyone else. This is not a fatal flaw. Oh no. It’s a good chance to do some of that research you were about to do on your novel.

People find this concept endlessly strange. ‘Why play a game?’ they say. ‘Just watch TV, or read another book.’

Ah, but no! The best thing about computer games? Your involvement. I don’t play those silly shoot everyone dead games. I play those wander around, do quests, slice your sword around, complicated plot, save the world sorts of games. I find this helps me no end without me even realising.

The unwary writer uses computer games to unwind. This, in itself, is also fine. But the unwary writer does not realise what else is happening while she’s pressing X and O and casting spells. She is learning about choices within plots. Example: run into a room full of things about to kill you. You enter abysmally unprepared, and as a result, get a butt whooping. So what do you do? Go back to your last saved game and take your character to the shop, get some armour, some new spells, and go back in. This could take hours, or one simple selection – but what it’s teaching the writer is that the simple things matter. How many times have gamers cursed themselves because you need to go all the way back through the temple to pick up that stupid key in the chest halfway across the room you thought you didn’t need?

Your involvement, the cerebral processes, the tactical decisions you make during these sorts of games, are exactly the same thing you employ when writing. You need to make your fight scene realistic without it being dull. You need to figure out some sort of complex plot point without it being obvious. The skills required are the same. You need logic, puzzle solving, rational and lateral thinking, and patience.

The other thing I quite enjoy is the pretty pictures. You can see some armour in-game and think ‘something like that might work for my novel’ (of course, I’m not advocating copying or plagiarism, because that’s wrong.) and you can incorporate it. Recently, for Son of Songs, Joe brought round a copy of Starship Titanic, because he saw some similarities with that and one of the chapters in the comic, in terms of artwork. I’d never played Starship Titanic before (you should – it’s written by Douglas Adams and Terry Jones, and has a novel to accompany it) so we sat down and did it – and the artwork is precisely what I wanted, pre-visualised. And, the game was really good too. Pretty artwork gets me thinking. I’m a very visual learner, so put some pictures in front of me and basically I’m happy; all of my stories come into my mind as little movies, so as to make me write better.

Thirdly, I think computer games can teach you quite a lot about character and dialogue. Good dialogue is difficult to do (something I’ll blog about later), and a lot of computer games require endless lines of dialogue to complete them. Studying this, and how the characters’ conversations flow, can help those in need. Character is an important point here too, because we have heroes, villains, anti-heroes and all else besides, in different shapes and sizes. Again, don’t copy, but pull bits here and there together to make what you want. Often, you start with a character you know little about but ultimately must come to like if you want to complete the game – a vital lesson in character development.

Finally: plot. What I think games are doing very well in at the moment is the ranger of diverse, complex and intriguing plots. Games have the best writers right now. Think Assassin’s Creed (who KNOWS what’s going on there?!), think Dead Space (for creepiness) – even, going old-school, Metal Gear Solid (one of the most complicated and well-rounded universes ever made) and Prince of Persia (solid, compelling games with great traditional plots). All of these games have us hooked start to end. Why? Good plot. If you’re struggling at world-building, grab yourself all 4 Metal Gear Solid games and have a crack at those bad boys.

And, consistently, you’re involved. You are the person pushing the buttons and running and jumping. You’re responsible for a pixelated life. And, really, that’s writing all over.

So, next time the writer in your life sits down in front of their console, don’t go, ‘Shouldn’t you be writing?’ because chances are their answer will be, ‘In a way, I already am.’

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